Birds of omen dark and foul, Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl,
Leave the sick man to his dream –All night long he heard your scream.
~Sir Walter Scott
Some 34 years ago, my young husband and I were driving through the Hiawatha National Forest in the upper peninsula of Michigan, in route to our new home in Sault Ste. Marie. We had been on the road for many hours, in fact days, having left frozen North Dakota in the middle of January, and had traveled across the snow covered northern highways of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and most of the U.P. before nearing our destination. We were glad to be back in the woods, where the giant pine boughs formed a welcoming arch way over the road we traveled. It was breath-taking, even in the dead of night. It was cozy in the warm cab of our U-haul truck, with our car being towed behind. Perhaps the rumble of the robust engine was lulling us to sleep or we were in that travelers weary-mode not looking for anything eventful to break the steady stream of road, when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a snowy owl struck our windshield, it’s wing-span covering the glass with an incredible bang, causing our hearts to jump and bringing us to a sudden stop. In the glow from our headlights, our boots crunched through the snow as we looked around and found nothing to make us think the bird had not survived. It was a perfect snow scene, a cathedral of ice; peaceful, pristine, almost haunting. In the serenity of that ancient, snow cover woods, he and I stood in silence hand-in-hand, dwarf by the trees and darkness around us, like Hansel and Gretel, a little afraid and bewildered, yet respectful of that moment, almost spiritual, we shared together. Needless to say, we found ourselves wide awake and more aware as we climb back up into the truck for the last leg of our trip. We didn’t know it then, but the move was to bring a sad ending to our marriage, and we were to travel away from the peninsula we shared a love for on to other places and people. I have often thought that snowy owl was trying to warn us, but we weren’t awake enough to see what was coming down the road. Or maybe, it was just a freak incident.
Now-a-days, there are owls around my house most of the fall and winter season. That’s not unusual, except that we live smack dab in the middle of a rather bland suburb in San Antonio, Texas. It’s definitely not the Hiawatha Forest, but we still seem to have our share of mockingbirds, cardinals, chick-a-dees, finches, cedar wax-wings, warblers and the like without much of an offering from our feeders.
The owls perch themselves in the giant live oaks that surround our house and can be seen on chimney tops and on electrical poles. I don’t care how many times I’ve seen or heard those majestic birds; each time is rather magical, awe inspiring, unless, of course, you don’t want to hear them.
Such was the case when my mother died in October of last year.
I had learned years ago about the mythology of owls, the bearers of bad news, harbingers of bad tidings, and symbols of death. Seen as good and wise (as the teacher symbol) and in other cases the sign of evil and doom; the owl has been widely written about in poetry, play, and prose. It’s not just any old bird. From the Inuit people of Alaska, Scotland’s Cailleach (the dark hag), to Disney animation, the owl has remained a mystical symbol, wise and ominous, a bird with a message or lesson.
So, it was puzzling when the day before my mother died, that an owl was perched and hooting on a low branch in our yard. Close enough to make our dogs growl, hair-raised and at alert, while the patio furniture vibrated from the intensity of the owl’s call. As odd as that seemed, I didn’t know then what I would know the next day.
The next morning, as I readied for work, an owl sat on a branch just outside my bathroom window. Its hoot rattled the pane and caused me to stop in my rush to brush out my hair. I could see him there in the shadows, could he see me? How strange to be so close, I thought.
That same owl, it seems, wanted more from me. As I drove out of the driveway, with the light of dawn breaking on the day, the owl flew down from that branch near my second story window and escorted me down the street a spell, hovering in perfect symmetry just over the hood of my car, in direct line of my vision. I had to stop, for my eyes were so glued on this incredible bird, seemingly guiding me down the street, I couldn’t drive. It lifted from my car and graceful flapped its downy wings in flight back into the trees on the other side of the street, while I sat there dumb-founded, and feeling ‘blessed’ that I should behold such a close look at this beautiful bird. I wasn’t thinking at all about harbingers of bad news or lessons. In fact, I was taught by that young husband years ago, that to see a hawk or owl was ‘good medicine’ in the Native American world, and I embraced that belief.
By afternoon of that day, I had received news of my mother’s passing. My mother was an avid bird watcher and keeper, her Michigan yard covered in bird houses, some make-shift, some whimsically covered in bright colors. From hummingbird nectar drips to the piles of Peterson’s Guide to Backyard Birds, it was clear she felt connected to winged-things.
It wasn’t until I was on the plane, indeed sitting above the wing, that it hit me. Numb from the shock of her sudden death, a little angry that she left me without a word, a sign, or even a laugh as she always did at ending our weekly phone chats; I suddenly remembered the owls. Did they know something? Wasn’t it strange that they came so close to me and loudly seemed to be grabbing my attention? Later I learned that two of my sisters had unusually close visits from owls in their yards in that same time period, solidifying my conviction that the owls knew something, perhaps were even my mother in spirit. How appropriate that would be, that she not be a little song bird upon leaving this world, but one who hovers and guides, keeping a kind of watch over her children from the trees.
Since then, the owls have continued to be so plentiful around our yard, that at one point I screamed at them to go away! They were, indeed, making me nervous and frighten. I just couldn’t handle any more bad news, and now they seem to haunt me more than please me.
Until the owl with the funky hoot could be heard, I just wanted to cover my head with a pillow at night. One evening we heard this strange loud sound like a messed-up duck call or a party horn with something stuck in it. We watched for many evenings. As the days moved into dusk, my husband and I would stand in the grayness of the naked-limbed trees and follow the movement of the owls around ours and the neighbor’s yards, looking for the source of that odd hoot, not even sure if it was an owl.
Though we couldn’t tell which one it was, we concluded that it was one of two owls that seem to visit every evening, and continue, even now as I write, to call to each other, one with a regular powerful owl hoot, and one with a broken odd sounding squawk. My heart went out to the owl with the funky hoot, as I wondered what happened to its voice. Could it have been met unexpectedly by a windshield one fateful night, like that snowy owl so many years ago, only to survive with a damaged, scarred vocal cord? Does its handicap make it any less of an owl, less able to contribute to the messages of news, good or bad, or call and connect to others of her kind? Certainly my hoot has turned to a squawk at times and has hindered the way I communicate my needs, my heart’s desire. How hard that must be for an owl’s survival.
I have always loved birds of prey, particularly the owl. My mother would want me to continue to respect them, regardless of their appearance at her grief-filled passing. And certainly, that little owl with the funny hoot has put a new spin on how haunting they have become for me. I see her, the owl that is, half-asleep, party-hat cocked to one side, with a horn in its mouth….trying to be like the others, and she just can’t be normal, or noble, or foreboding, no matter how hard she tries. I needed her to bring my back into embracing her kind. Teacher, wise-one, harbinger of doom, whatever, I’m so glad they continue to hang out and hoot at my house. They remind me, even now in a silly way, that my mother is always with me…in winged-things and in ear-shot, and she continues to make me laugh, to stay awake and present, and to remember the lessons I’ve learned along my many roads. Perhaps, that was my mother’s message as she took flight, “Stay awake, Cynthia. Don’t fall asleep at the wheel of your journey.” Good medicine, after all.